You might not think much about getting enough iron, or maybe you've been lax about taking iron supplements or eating foods high in iron. However, without iron for healthy red blood cells, you may not only develop anemia but also be at risk for low blood pressure and heart failure.
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Anemia and Heart Failure
Anemia happens when your body doesn't produce enough healthy red blood cells, which are tasked with providing oxygen to the tissues in your body, the Mayo Clinic points out. A common type of anemia, iron-deficiency anemia, is caused by low iron levels — iron is an essential building block of healthy red blood cells.
When you have iron-deficiency anemia, you may notice fatigue, weakness, pale skin, chest pain, a rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath, among other symptoms, says Mayo Clinic. Mild cases of iron-deficiency anemia usually don't cause major complications, but more serious cases can have more serious consequences. But always bring these symptoms to the attention of your doctor.
When you don't produce enough iron, your heart must pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen, which can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure, explains George Bakris, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the American Heart Association Comprehensive Hypertension Center at University of Chicago Medicine. About half of all people with heart failure have anemia, according to the American College of Cardiology.
"If you are diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, discuss it with your primary care physician first and foremost to understand why this is occurring," Dr. Bakris says.
There are many reasons that you may be low in iron and some are more serious than others, he says. This form of anemia could be due to a lack of iron in your diet or to an inability to absorb enough iron because of pregnancy, blood loss or a gastrointestinal disorder like celiac disease. It can happen if you have heavy periods. Other causes of blood loss resulting in anemia include ulcers and possibly colon cancer, states the Mayo Clinic.
If your iron deficiency is a result of your diet, it may help to eat more iron-rich foods, such as red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans and dark green leafy vegetables. Dried fruit and iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas are also good sources of iron, according to the Mayo Clinic. Vitamin C, found in orange juice and citrus fruit, helps your body better absorb iron so it's a good idea to consume vitamin C-rich foods when you eat high-iron foods.
Low Blood Pressure and Anemia
Not enough iron isn't the only anemia culprit. A lack of the vitamins B12 and folate can prevent your body from producing enough red blood cells, and this can cause low blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic. High blood pressure tends to get more attention than low blood pressure because it is a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, but low blood pressure can also be a cause for concern.
Low blood pressure is defined as having either a systolic reading (the top number) below 90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or a diastolic reading (the bottom number) below 60 mm Hg. Low blood pressure may cause dizziness and fainting, and in severe cases, low blood pressure can be life-threatening, the Mayo Clinic cautions.
Anemia may also cause orthostatic hypotension, which is low blood pressure that occurs when you stand up quickly, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If low levels of B12 or folate are responsible for your anemia and low blood pressure, your doctor will figure out why you are low in these nutrients. If the cause is diet-related, for example, you can make some changes. Foods rich in B12 include meat, fish and dairy products, according to the UK's National Health Service. Folate-rich foods include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, peas, chickpeas and brown rice.
What to do? Talk to your doctor about what is driving your anemia and how best to address it.
- Mayo Clinic: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- Mayo Clinic: "Low Blood Pressure (Hypotension)"
- George Bakris, MD, professor of medicine and director, American Heart Association Comprehensive Hypertension Center, University of Chicago Medicine, Chicago
- American College of Cardiology: "Iron Deficiency in Heart Failure"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Orthostatic Hypotension"
- National Health Service: "Vitamin B12 or Folate Deficiency Anaemia: Treatment"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.